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A Worthy Pursuit
By Karen Witemeyer
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2015 Karen Witemeyer
All rights reserved.
April 1891 Madisonville, Texas
"Whoa." Stone Hammond tugged once on the reins, and his black immediately stopped. "I better climb the rest of the way alone, Goliath." He slid from the saddle, pushing the long length of his duster aside as he swung his leg over the horse's rump. "A behemoth like you is likely to block out the sun this time of day if you crest the hill, and after eight weeks of huntin' I ain't about to let you scare off my quarry."
The black turned his head and gave Stone a look that seemed to imply Stone wasn't exactly a dainty specimen himself then turned his attention to sampling the local prairie grass. Stone snorted. Crazy beast. Always so uppity. But he wouldn't trade him for the biggest bounty on the federal marshal's wall. No, the two of them had been through too many adventures to ever call it quits. They'd battled outlaws, renegades—shoot, even a pair of thievin' circus performers who'd turned out to be devilishly good with knives. He and Goliath bore the scars and carried the years of hard living upon their bodies, but their hearts beat as true today as they had when they'd started a decade ago.
They were retrievers. The best in the state. It was the one thing in life he was good at. Never once had he failed to bring in what he was sent after. And with what this job was paying him, he'd finally be able to buy himself that little place he'd had his eye on, the one far enough away from people and their problems that he and Goliath could retire in peace.
A place not too different from the log cabin he'd spied on the other side of this rise.
Pulling a pair of field glasses out of his saddle bag, he patted Goliath's neck then set out for the top of the hill. Knowing his six-foot-three-inch frame would block out the sun just as much as Goliath, Stone hunkered over as he climbed, going down to his belly for the last few yards. Bracing his weight on his elbows, he sighted the house then held the field glasses up to his eyes and focused in on the details that would tell him how best to approach.
His target had proven unusually cagey. And careful. No witnesses. No discernible trail. No demand for ransom. He'd been forced to do his tracking through society drawing rooms and county registries. Not exactly his areas of expertise. Folks tended to either cower or look down their noses at him in those kinds of places. But enduring the disdainful sniffs of a passel of pinkie-pointin', tea-sippin' ladies had eventually paid off, leading him to a bit of old gossip that gave him his first solid lead. And if he was right, he'd have his quarry rustled up before nightfall.
Stone rolled onto his back and pulled out the photograph he'd taken from the school wall. Three women and a man stood behind a group of two dozen kids spit-shined and dressed for the camera. Two black ink circles blazed up at him. One around a young girl sitting in the front row. Another around a tall woman standing ramrod straight on the far right.
Was the girl dead? Sold? The child was a pretty little thing. Blond hair, bright eyes. A gal like that would fetch a hefty price down in Mexico. But her grandfather didn't seem to believe any serious harm had befallen the girl. He'd simply hired Stone to find her and retrieve her. But what did a pampered rich man know about the seedy side of the world?
Stone had seen evil up close, had trailed men who'd slit a fellow's throat without a second thought, who'd rape a woman then trod on her face for the perverse pleasure of having her beneath his boot. But those who hurt children? Those were the worst of the lot. He prayed the old man was right. He'd never laid a hand on a woman, but God help him, if this Charlotte Atherton person had hurt the child or sold her into the hands of one who would, he didn't think he'd be able to stop himself.
Rolling back onto his stomach, he squinted through the field glasses and ordered his heart rate to calm. No use imagining the worst. Everyone he'd interviewed had given Miss Atherton a glowing character reference. Active in her church, charitable even on her small salary, dedicated to her students. Yet why would such a paragon steal a child? There must be something darker lurking beneath the surface. Something cunning and sly and perhaps a bit demented.
A high-pitched scream pierced the quiet afternoon air. A child's cry. Stone tensed. The toes of his boots dug into the earth, ready to spring him forward. He'd not stand by and do nothing while a child—
A tow-headed girl ran out of the cabin. Stone raised off his belly enough to grab the six-shooter from his right holster. The Colt wasn't the best for long-range shooting, but the sound would draw attention away from the girl. He held the field glasses steady, his gaze glued to the girl as he cocked the hammer.
She screamed again then turned to glance over her shoulder. Stone froze. The girl's face was aglow with ... laughter. She wasn't screaming. She was squealing. A boy, probably a couple years older than the girl, ran into the viewing area, a long-armed contraption of some sort in his hand. A loud pop echoed an instant before a rope shot out from the thing. The girl squealed again and dodged to the left. The rope flopped onto the ground. Admirably close to its target, though. If the boy rigged the rope with a barbed end, he'd have himself a harpoon. Rather impressive.
"You missed!" the girl crowed. She said something more, but her return to normal volume kept the words from carrying.
Exhaling a slow breath, Stone holstered his revolver and settled back in to observe. He tossed a quick prayer heavenward, thanking God that Lily Dorchester was alive and unharmed. For the girl was Lily. He'd recognized her features when she'd turned. Now she was dancing around the boy, as carefree as a tawny-haired kitten playing with a piece of string—a string the boy was wrapping up and reloading for another round of target practice.
The dancing halted with a skid. Lily ran up to the boy and cupped her hand between her mouth and his ear then pointed back toward the house. Stone scanned the yard in the direction she'd pointed. A statuesque woman with a laundry basket propped against one hip glided toward a line draped with sheets, towels, and a pair of aprons. Her back was to him, so he couldn't make out her features, but she moved with the refined grace of a society lady. No hurry to her step. Back straight as a board. Hair miraculously unaffected by the wind. At least she wore sensible clothes. Not exactly prairie calico, but her blue skirt was free of frills and she'd rolled the sleeves of her white shirtwaist to her elbows. Add a tailored jacket, and she'd look just like the woman in the picture. Charlotte Atherton.
His pulse sped up a notch at the sight of his quarry.
But he wasn't the only hunter about. Another had her in his sights as well. One with a giggly assistant who couldn't seem to stand still in her excitement. The boy crept closer to his target, took careful aim, and waited. Waited for her to drop the laundry basket and reach for the first sheet. Waited for her to fold. Waited until the precise moment she leaned over to lay the clean linen in the bottom of the basket.
A pop sounded, followed by a less-than-dignified screech as the rope's end slapped against Miss Atherton's ... end. The woman jerked upright, one hand moving to cover the offended area as she spun.
Now the truth would show itself. Stone waited for the explosion.
And there it was. Would she fetch a switch? Perhaps a strop?
These tight-laced teacher types always had something around for maintaining discipline. Never a drop of humor in them, and blessed little compassion.
The two pranksters darted out of his vision, but Stone didn't move the glasses to follow them. His attention was locked on the face that had just turned his way.
The photograph hadn't done her justice. Stone's breath leaked out of him in a quiet whistle. Hair the color of sunlight shining through honey. Sun-kissed cheeks and snapping blue-green eyes. Why, if she softened that stern expression of hers, she'd be downright pretty.
"That's quite a clever contraption you've put together, Stephen," she called after the fleeing children. "But if you ever administer it in that fashion again, you'll be writing me an essay on the role of gentlemanly behavior in the advancement of civilization." She shouted the last, ensuring the boy heard her dire threat. If one could call that bit of pudding a threat. An essay? Really? That's what she used to keep the children in line?
Taskmasters the world over were hanging their heads in shame. Wouldn't a kidnapper have to enlist bigger guns to keep her charges from escaping? Locked doors, perhaps. Chains. At least a few threats of bodily harm. A coil of unease tightened in his gut. Something about this situation didn't sit right.
Stone pushed up on his elbows and started to drop the field glasses, but Miss Atherton did something at just that moment that arrested him. She smiled. Small and sweet and oh-so-secret as she slowly turned back toward her laundry. A fondness for the troublesome boy had glowed from within its depths. Not the smile of a madwoman or an abductress tasting future payments, but the smile of a mother.
It must have been that smile that kept him from hearing the nearly silent footsteps creeping up behind him. When the muffled sound finally registered in his brain, his attacker was upon him.
Stone rolled to his back, his hands curving around the grips of both pistols. They never cleared leather. For the gray-haired gnome that had materialized out of the hillside slammed a rifle butt against the top of his head, and Stone's world went black.
Excerpted from A Worthy Pursuit by Karen Witemeyer. Copyright © 2015 Karen Witemeyer. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers.
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